Durango Travel Guide [y]

[y] Durango Visitors Guide

Durango was founded in 1880 as a base for the Denver Rio Grande Railroad and as a supply center for the surrounding mines. Only a year later the railroad connected Durango to the mining town of Silverton, in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. Even today, the old train depot, the Railroad Museum, and the historic Durango-Silverton train partly define the character of Durango.  A ride on this narrow-gauge train, a National Historic Landmark, is certainly a must for visitors.  This ninety-mile round-trip route winds through the beautiful Animus River Valley and the dramatic San Juan Mountains en-route to the town of Silverton at 9,300 feet elevation.

Durango-Silverton train
Durango-Silverton train

Durango still retains much of its “Old West” atmosphere and charm. The Main Avenue Historic District on Main Street is lined with historic commercial buildings, including the Strater Hotel, which still dominates the skyline of downtown Durango.  For some unusual night-life during the summer months, experience the Victorian Melodrama at the Stater Hotel, accompanied by live ragtime piano.  Numerous restaurants, souvenir shops, and art galleries are available in the downtown area.  Durango makes a great base for visiting the many points of interest in the surrounding area.  Nearby attractions include Trimble Hot Springs, Durango Mountain Resort (skiing), Vallecito Lake, and several world-recognized American Indian archeological sites such as Mesa Verde National Park.

  • Location: South West Colorado at the junction of US 160 and US 550
  • Geologic Setting: In the Animas River Valley at the southern edge of the San Juan Mountains and San Juan National Forest;  surrounded by red sandstone bluffs, mesa country lies to the South and West;  the Animas River runs south through the town
  • Elevation: 6,523 feet
  • Population: Approximately 14,000
  • Economy: Tourism, education, medical services, and government

Climate

The average high temperature in July is 87 degrees (F), dropping into the 50s at night.  The average high temperature in January is 40 degrees, dropping into the teens at night.

San Juan Skyway

The San Juan Skyway, designated as an “All American Road” by the Federal government, the highest rating, has also been called “The Most Beautiful Drive in America”. This 236-mile route takes you on a loop through the rugged San Juan Mountains — a maze of jagged peaks, precipitous canyons, and peaceful valleys. It winds through historic mining towns and passes by prehistoric Native American ruins. You can ride a historic narrow-gauge railroad through dramatic mountain scenery. You can stop and explore the plant and animal life of the various ecological zones from high desert to tundra, from pinyon pine and sage to minute tundra wildflowers. The drive takes you through the Uncompahgre and San Juan National Forests, which offer abundant opportunities for camping, hiking, and other forms of outdoor recreation.

San Juan Skyway
San Juan Skyway

The town of Ridgway is a convenient place to begin the byway. Driving west from Ridgway to the Dallas Divide are beautiful, panoramic views of Mt. Sneffels and its Range, a much-photographed area. The route follows the San Miguel River to the historic mining town of Telluride, which is located in one of the most picturesque box canyons in Colorado. Driving south from Telluride over Lizard Head Pass you will encounter scenic views of 14,017 foot Mt. Wilson and vistas of Trout Lake. At the summit of the pass is a beautiful panoramic view to the east of Vermillion Peak and Sheep Mountain. From here the route descends into the Dolores River Valley and the beginning of arid mesa country.

The Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores is an excellent place to learn about the Native American culture of this region. The next town, Cortez, is located in an area rich in archaeological sites and deserves its billing as “The Archaeological Center of the United States”. Nearby is Mesa Verde, which was designated a National Park in 1906 and named a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. The park is renowned for its 13th century Anasazi cliff-dwellings.

Durango, located in the beautiful Animas River Valley, is a popular tourist destination and the starting point for the famous Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad — a National Historic Landmark. Heading north from Durango through the valley, the byway climbs over Coal Bank Pass, with views of the West Needle Mountains and the Weminuche Wilderness to the East. Reaching the summit of the Molas Pass, one of the most scenic views on the byway, the road then winds down to the old mining town of Silverton. From Silverton to Ouray the route is known as the “Million Dollar Highway”. On this section of the byway are spectacular views of classic mountain scenery that are particularly striking in the fall. At the summit of Red Mountain Pass, a scenic overlook has interpretive signs describing the mining history of the area. The road switchbacks and spirals down from the pass, following the edge of Uncompahgre Gorge to Ouray, another historic mining town famous for its hot springs. After Ouray, the byway continues back to Ridgway.

Key Attractions

  • Durango Mountain Resort
  • Durango Silverton Railroad
  • Mesa Verde National Park
  • San Juan Skyway
  • Stater Hotel
  • Trimble Hot Springs
  • Vallecito Lake

Durango and Silverton Railroad

In continuous operation since July 1882, this narrow gauge train was built by the Denver and Rio Grande to haul silver and gold ore from the mines in Silverton.  It now transports visitors on a 90 mile, round trip excursion between Durango and Silverton along the Animas River and through spectacular scenery in the San Juan Mountains.  The coal-fired, steam locomotives used are 1920’s vintage, restored to their original condition.  Open gondola cars are available that allow visitors unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains.  The train has been used as a set for numerous movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “Green Table,” is a huge plateau rising to 8,000 feet elevation above Montezuma Valley to the west and Mancos Valley to the east and south.  Mesa Verde was designated a National Park in 1906 and was recognized as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. The park preserves and protects the cultural heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who occupied the area for over seven hundred years from approximately AD650 to 1300. The remarkable cliff dwellings and other archeological sites found in Mesa Verde are some of the most notable and best-preserved prehistoric ruins in the United States. Mesa Verde National Park offers visitors an unparalleled look into the lives of an ancient Native American culture.

Key Events

  • May: Iron Horse Bicycle Classic
  • May-Jun: Mesa Verde Country Indian Arts and Culture Festival
  • Jun: Animus River Days
  • Jun-Aug: Durango Pro Rodeo
  • Jul-Aug: Music in the Mountains

Annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic

The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is one of the most popular bicycle events in the West, held over Memorial Day weekend.  Approximately 2,500  bicyclists race against the historic Durango-Silverton narrow gauge train on its 50 miles run from Durango to Silverton through the rugged San Juan Mountains.   Bicycling enthusiasts from around the US and the world attend annually.  A number of other outdoor events have been added in the past few years, including road races, tours, BMX races, trail races, and mountain bike races, to name a few.  A live concert is held in the evening on Main Street.

Annual Mesa Verde Country Indian Arts and Culture Festival

This comprehensive set of events showcases Native American arts and culture.  The venues include Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez Cultural Center, Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Crow Canyon Archeological Center, and Towaoc.  A wide variety of activities includes special archeological tours, a concert with Nammy Award-winning musician Arvel Bird, a juried art show and market, the century-old Bear Dance festivity, lectures, and numerous other dance, music, and cultural events.

Visitor Information

  • Durango Area Tourism Office:  (800)525-8855, www.durango.org
  • Durango Central Reservations:  (866)294-5187, www.durangoreservations.org